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Hack the Forms

What do we have?

User research results.

Veterans Affairs professionals to provide an overview and answer questions.

The original forms.

A veteran who was familiar with the forms.

"Using the VA system, I'm probably eligible for X but the red tape is so daunting. The feeling is that it's too much to chip away at." - Veteran, Florida

Benefits require a service connection, or a way to connect their PTSD with something that happened to them while in service.

The problem:

Veterans have a lot of trouble admitting they need help for PTSD. On top of this, they found the existing forms a significant barrier to getting the care they needed.
The process
The form's instructions
Instructions: List the stressful incident or incidents that occurred in service that you feel contributed to your current condition. For each incident, provide a description of what happened, the date, the geographic location, your unit assignments and dates of assignment, and the full names and unit assignments of you know of who were killed or injured during the incident. Please provide dates within at least a 60-day range and do not use nicknames. It is important that you complete the form in detail and be as specific as possible so that research of military records can be thoroughly conducted. If more space is neede, attach a separate sheet, indicating the item number to which the answers apply.

All of the instructions were together in a large block at the top of the form. Not only did this not offer context, but it came across as very confrontational.

One of my team's goals was to explain what was needed and why, within the context of each question.

Q & A

What does the VA need from veterans to offer them benefits? Why do they need this?

The VA needs as much information as possible to find an event that occured while a veteran was in service that could plausibly cause PTSD.  


They look through huge amounts of records to do this, and want to avoid adding turnaround time to the process by getting as much information up front as possible.

What is a service connection? Does everyone need to prove one?

A service connection says that there is good reason to believe that there was an event in the veteran's time of service that would cause PTSD.

Some types of service automatically mean that there was a service connection, and no lengthy search was needed. For example, those with combat decorations and all prisoners of war.

What do veterans need from the process?

Forms that are clear, concise, and show an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the need for that form.


Also important is a way to know what's happening with one's claim: given the need for records' searches, these tend to take a long time. The end of the form should explain next steps, and ways to get in touch about the status of their claim.


We jotted down everything that was needed in the forms, in order, and decided to focus on one of them due to time constraints. 

We wanted to keep in mind the need for explanations within the context of the questions, the fact that not everyone would need to fill out the form in its entirety, and how to best support the veterans filling out the form.

The original form had two spaces for events related to potential PTSD. On one hand, this seemed like undue pressure on a veteran to recall and recount two separate incidents. On the other, the turnover time required to ask for additional information if the event couldn't be found in the military records would dramatically delay care. We decided to keep both, but make it very clear what they were for and that describing two wasn't required.

Sketchboard listing the pieces of the form that are needed, various comments on those, and a sketch of a modified form with sections and additional context and explanation around why things are needed.
User Feedback

A veteran familiar with the forms was available at the hackathon, and stopped by each group to offer feedback.


He pointed out that describing an event was the biggest hurdle for many veterans ("I don't want to remember it, let alone write it down!"). He also mentioned that privacy was a significant concern, and explained that it would be very helpful to remind veterans that "PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation".

Original incident description box
"3E. Description of the incident" followed by a very large empty box.

We conferred with the VA professionals in attendance, and learned that the amount of detail in the description box is usually the least important part of the form. Knowing when, where, unit assignment, and who else was involved was typically far more useful for finding a service record. As a result, in our final form, we made this box much smaller and less prominent.

We added a note about privacy at the top of our form that "We won't share this data without your specific consent", and at the beginning of the form reminded veterans that PTSD was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

The form and cover page

Below is our prototype for one of the two versions of the PTSD form.

Form with lots of extra whitespace, section titles, and better explanations of why information is needed.

Not everyone who applies for PSTD coverage needs to fill out the form. We originally thought we'd make this clear on the form itself. We then learned that the form always goes out with instructions, and another group member created a cover page to go along with the mailed form. 

Congratulations on taking your first step toward healing your PTSD. Take no further action if... you have a combat decoration, you've had the following duty assignments, you were a POW. You're all set. Otherwise... continue
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